Migrant deaths and disappearances
Since 2014, more than 4,000 fatalities have been recorded annually on migratory routes worldwide. The number of deaths recorded, however, represent only a minimum estimate because the majority of migrant deaths around the world go unrecorded. Since 1996, more than 75,000 migrant deaths have been recorded globally. These data not only highlight the issue of migrant fatalities and the consequences for families left behind, but can also be used to assess the risks of irregular migration and to design policies and programmes to make migration safer.
Migrant deaths and disappearances recorded globally by IOM's Missing Migrants Project beginning 1 January 2014.1
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There is a range in how migrant deaths are defined. The International Organization of Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project, which collates data from many different sources, records the deaths of people who die in the intentional process of migrating towards a country different from their country of residence. This definition is similar to that used by other initiatives, such as the Deaths at the Borders Database in Europe, except that it also includes migrants who have gone missing while traversing bodies of water on their journey. This approach is chosen because deaths that occur at physical borders and while en route represent a more clearly definable category, and inform what migration routes are most dangerous. As it is often difficult to determine the migratory status of unidentified remains, those found at border crossings or on major migratory routes may be categorized as migrants based on their belongings and/or the characteristics of the death. For example, the death of a Honduran national who fell off a freight train in Mexico may be recorded as a migrant death due to Central American migrants’ frequent use of La Bestia freight train route to travel through Mexico to reach the United States (US) border. Because these deaths often occur during irregular migration, data collection and analysis of migrant deaths are highly related to this topic.
Other sources of data may also include deaths which are not included in IOM’s Missing Migrants Project or most other sources on migrant deaths, such as those that:
- Occur in refugee camps, detention facilities, or during deportation;
- Take place after forced return to a migrant’s homeland; or
- Are more loosely connected with migrants’ ‘irregular status’, such as those resulting from xenophobia, labour exploitation or other structural discrimination.
Most sources of data on migrant deaths do not include deaths resulting from internal migration or those of long-term foreign residents. Destination and origin state authorities often collect such data.
IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, the only current effort to collect data on migrant deaths worldwide, has recorded the deaths and disappearances of more than 33,400 women, men and children since beginning data collection in 2014. The vast majority of migrant deaths recorded by the project have been in the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 18,500 people have been recorded dead or missing since 2014. The Central Mediterranean route from Northern Africa towards Italy accounts for the highest number of reported deaths and disappearances during migration, claiming the lives of 15,500 people between January 2014 and October 2019. Although some of the increase in migrant deaths may be a result of improving data sources, it also demonstrates increasing risks for migrants worldwide. Several other regions of the world have seen thousands of deaths during migration since 2014. More than 7,400 deaths have been recorded across the African continent, many of which occurred on transit routes across the Sahara Desert. The deaths of more than 3,000 people have been documented during migration in Asia in the last five years, often linked to the exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar. In the Americas, more than 3,600 people have been reported dead or missing during migration since 2014. Sixty percent of these deaths were documented on the border between Mexico and the United States.
Several primary sources provide information on migrant deaths. Various platforms consolidate these data together at the global, regional, national, and local levels.
Data collection at the global level:
IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, which started in 2014, is the only database that collects data on migrant deaths worldwide. The sources of data used vary depending on the availability within each region. For example, in the Mediterranean region, local staff from IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relay data from when they receive survivors at landing points in Italy and Greece. On the US-Mexico border, data are compiled based on data from US county medical examiners and sheriffs’ offices. Estimates in other regions are based primarily on media and year-end government reports where available.
Data collection at the regional level:
Surveys and interviews with migrants can also serve as a source of information about migrant deaths. However, such methods involve the inability to verify reported information, the possibility of double counting the same incident reported independently by more than one respondent, and relatively small sample sizes that are not necessarily representative. Different sources gather information on migrant fatalities through surveys and interviews at different stages of migration, for instance:
- In countries along the Mediterranean, when search and rescue ships reach land, first responders from IOM and UNHCR regularly ask survivors about people who died or went missing on their journey across the Mediterranean.
- The Mixed Migration Centre and the Mixed Migration Hub, both multi-agency consortiums, interview migrants in transit and destination countries in Africa or Europe about their journeys, and include questions on if migrants witnessed abuses or death along the way.
Datasets: In terms of consolidating primary information, there are several datasets at the regional level:
- UNHCR collects information about migrant deaths occurring in the Mediterranean Sea, though they produce only a single summary figure with no indication of their methodology or underlying data.
- Deaths at the Border Database collected data from local authorities in Greece, Gibraltar, Italy, Malta and Spain on the bodies of migrants who died between 1990 and 2013.
- Australian Border Deaths Dataset, produced by the Border Crossing Observatory in Monash University, Australia, has recorded deaths “associated with Australia’s borders” since 2000.
- Between 2000 and 2016, the Migrant Files, a consortium of journalists, collected information on people who died trying to reach, as well as trying to stay in Europe irregularly. Their records comprise news articles as well as data from two other databases on migrant deaths: the data produced by the Dutch organization UNITED for Intercultural Action; and the data from Fortress Europe, which had collected information since the early 1990s. All three of these sources collected their data primarily from media reports, and used a definition of migrant deaths which includes deaths in detention and those connected to irregular legal status.
Data collection at the local and/or national Level:
- Case studies: The International Labour Organization (ILO) has published reports and conducts investigations into cases of worker deaths, including those of migrant workers. (For example, ILO, 2016). However, it does not host publicly consolidated records.
- On nationals abroad: Some governments publish records of the deaths of their nationals abroad, whether they died while migrating, in detention or at work. These include:
- Administrative data records: Data on migrant deaths are often not disaggregated from general data on deaths at a federal or local level. Where available, records kept by law enforcement, medical examiners, and death registries may provide data on migrant deaths, though the quality and availability of such records vary greatly. These include:
- US Customs and Border Protection, which publishes the number of “illegal border crossers” who have died crossing the southern border of the country; however, this number only includes cases in which their officers were directly involved.
- Humane Borders, which uses data from the Pima County, Arizona county medical examiner to map the deaths of people who have died while crossing the border.
- Media reports: Social and traditional media often report on events that involve death(s) during migration, though the quality, completeness and accuracy of such reports may vary greatly. The Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía publishes an annual report with estimates of the number of people who died trying to reach Spain irregularly (including across Spain’s sea and land borders), which is based largely off of media reports.
Data strengths & limitations
Data on migrant deaths can be used to inform politics and discussion on the risks of migration and the effects of immigration and border policies, instead of referring to passing events reported in the media. Migrant deaths data will also contribute to the discussion of UN Sustainable Development Goal 10.7, which calls for safe migration, and Objective 8 of the Global Compact for Migration, which calls on States to "save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrant". Nevertheless, regardless of how wide or narrow the definition, data on migrant deaths represent a minimum estimate in all regions. There are also numerous challenges related to collecting and consolidating migrant deaths data.
Primary data collection challenges include:
- Few official sources collect and publish data on migrant deaths.
- As deaths occur primarily when migrants travel by irregular means, it means they are often in remote areas chosen with the aim of evading detection. As a result, bodies are often not found or they are not found for a long time, and deaths may not be reported to authorities.
- When deaths occur at sea, many bodies may not be recovered. Without passenger lists, the precise number of missing persons is unknown.
- The involvement of criminal or government actors in the facilitation of irregular migration may make survivors fearful of reporting deaths and some deaths may even be actively covered up.
Challenges related to consolidating data include:
- There is varying quality and comprehensiveness of data across regions. Therefore, attempts to estimate deaths globally may exaggerate the share of deaths that occur in some regions, while under-representing the share occurring in others.2
- Different data collectors may use differing definitions of “migrant deaths”, making comparisons difficult.
- Information from media sources may have incomplete or inaccurate coverage.
Another challenge with data on migrant deaths (and with other data on migrants), is to convey the people behind the numbers. As often as possible, the context of deaths should be included in communications about the data, with the aim of humanizing each death and avoiding their normalization.
- 1. See Fatal Journeys 4 to see how the estimates are calculated. Find the publication at https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/fatal_journeys_4.pdf
- 2. For example, some experts believe that the crossing over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is more deadly than that over the Mediterranean Sea. (United Nations, 2016).